Lack of exercise in schools may be detrimental to learning

As schools endeavour to meet academic performance measures, physical exercise inevitably slips down the list of priorities and breaktimes are squeezed, leaving students more sedentary as a result. But while it’s clear that being less active is likely to impact negatively on children’s health, could it be detrimental to their learning, too? Irena Barker takes a look
31st January 2020, 12:03am
Active Duty


Lack of exercise in schools may be detrimental to learning

At Thorner C of E Primary School, children get gloriously and comprehensively muddy. They climb the trees looming over the school grounds. They run and jump and spin through their breaks. They hula hoop, skip and dance during lesson time. They are a network of perpetually moving cogs oscillating through the classrooms. Head Ian Holmes has designed it that way. He wants his school to be an active school. So his school day is a “moving” school day.

In this respect, Thorner C of E Primary School is the exception, not the rule. The evidence we have suggests schools are becoming more static places: there’s too much to learn, there’s too much scrutiny of academic results alone - there’s seemingly no time for the health-boosting nice-to-haves of playtimes and active learning and running around.

But what if those nice-to-haves are not just crucial for health benefits but for learning, too? What if you could make physical activity a necessary part of your school and not only meet all the accountability objectives but also improve your performance in them? What would school look like then?

The calcification of the school day is a curious occurrence when you consider how well-rehearsed the arguments for an active childhood now are. Every teacher knows obesity in childhood is now more common and every teacher knows that active children are healthier children.

If anyone was in any doubt, the World Health Organisation (WHO) puts it in simple terms: “Appropriate practice of physical activity assists young people to: develop healthy musculoskeletal tissues (bones, muscles and joints); develop a healthy cardiovascular system (heart and lungs); develop neuromuscular awareness (coordination and movement control); maintain a healthy body weight.”

Essentially, if we want healthy adults, we need to have active children. To reap these benefits, the WHO recommends 60 minutes of exercise per day for 5- to 17-year-olds, and 180 minutes for three- to four-year-olds. The exercise needs to be spread across the waking hours, so smashing a 60-minute run and then sitting around for the rest of the day simply does not cut it. Both the English and Scottish governments have adopted these guidelines.

At Thorner, these targets are hit, but at the majority of schools, they are not. According to the latest 2018-19 survey from Sport England, activity levels are rising for children and young people but only 46.8 per cent are meeting the recommended levels. What’s more, the increase has been put down to activity outside of school.

The survey found that only 40 per cent of children and young people are active for at least 30 minutes per day in school, a figure that the Youth Sport Trust has called “unacceptable” . The Youth Sport Trust has also found that time allocated for PE has been cut in many schools, having fallen down the list of priorities in favour of other subjects.

Some researchers are now using wearable “accelerometers” to track activity, with alarming findings. A recent study showed that just 63 per cent of a sample of Year 1 children were meeting the guidelines. This number fell to just 41 per cent in Year 6, with the drop-off most marked among girls.

The more you look at the studies, the bleaker the picture gets: schools are clearly much more sedentary places than they once were. It’s not difficult to find the reasons for this. Accountability is a big one: there appear to be no international or national government league tables for bleep test results taken by 16-year-olds or star jumps for five-year-olds. However, there are plenty looking at academic outcomes. Schools are simply prioritising what they’re measured on.

Accountability pressures have been blamed for squeezing breaktimes - a UCL study, released in 2019, found that children in key stage 1 now have 45 minutes less breaktime per week than children of the same age in 1995, and pupils in key stages 3 and 4 have 65 minutes less.

Policy is another issue, particularly in England: the introduction of the English Baccalaureate has led to a reduction in entrants for more “active” subjects, such as PE, design and technology, and drama.

And finally, the role of the cognitive science research that has proved most trendy in schools - working memory research, in particular - must also be considered. It pushes a teacher towards a more direct-instruction form of teaching, with the teacher at the front lecturing and an emphasis on individual - ie, seated - practice.

The “fun” and active activities of debate, group work, science practicals, project learning, role play and more have been cast as distractions to be avoided.

“The problem with the school environment now is that it is probably contrary to helping a child achieve an active lifestyle,” argues Andy Daly-Smith, senior lecturer in physical activity and behavioural science at Leeds Beckett University.

In lessons, he explains, children are sedentary “because we’ve developed this understanding that a child sitting down on a chair is paying attention and is therefore in the best position to learn”.

But what if the league tables for attainment do reflect a commitment to activity and we just don’t realise it? What if the policy drives to make children more knowledgeable by squeezing active subjects and the research being used to argue that children learn in a certain, static way is contradicted by copious other evidence? What if the school day should actually look very different because activity helps not just a child’s health but how they learn, too?

The case for an active school

Plenty of people argue this is the case.

Tony Okely is director of research at the Early Start initiative, a University of Wollongong-run group of early childhood experts in education, psychology, health and the arts and the creative arts.

There are few people who know more about early childhood development and its connection to physical activity than Okely, who is a senior professor in the university’s Faculty of Social Sciences. He led the research team that developed and recently updated the Australian 24-hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (birth to 5 years) and for children and young people; he was part of the Guideline Development Group for the WHO guidelines on physical activity in children under 5; and he was part of the teams designing similar guidelines in Canada, South Africa and the UK. He is also currently leading an international surveillance study of 24-hour movement behaviours in the early years (called SUNRISE), which involves around 30 countries.

Okely says that one headline from all this research - and a conclusion detailed in the WHO guidelines - is that exercise brings not just health benefits but a cognitive boost as well. “Any domain of child development is [positively] associated with physical activity,” he says, explaining it is linked to everything from improved cognition to bone health. “The more physical activity you do, the greater those benefits. And the more intense the activity, the more the benefits increase.”

Is that because healthier children concentrate more? The WHO guidelines list benefits to wellbeing, to the control of anxiety and depression and to self-confidence - all of which could impact learning. But, in truth, the specific reason why physical activity can boost overall cognitive and academic performance in children is still inconclusive.

That there is a link, though, is - as Okely suggests - hard to refute. There is strong evidence, for example, for physical activity having beneficial effects on maths performance, according to a Dutch-led analysis.

Purposefully making lessons more physically active in nature has also been shown to have a positive effect on learning, as have short “classroom movement breaks”, such as those at Thorner. Daly-Smith conducted a systematic review of the effect of these and found that time on-task improved in nine out of 11 interventions. Short five-minute bursts of exercise were successful but only if “vigorous”, rather than “moderate to vigorous”.

The study concluded that “10- to five-minute bouts demonstrated consistent improvements; larger effects were observed in more intense interventions, whereas longer durations found mixed effects”.

Daly-Smith also highlights a Spanish analysis, which found that promoting physical activity in school hours “does not mean a waste of time but rather is an effective strategy to improve academic performance and behaviours”.

Other research has looked at the effects on outcomes when schools increase the amount of time they devote to PE. One Australian study found that increasing time devoted to the subject had no negative impact on learning - indeed, it could “significantly improve student learning”.

“It’s been shown consistently that if schools devote additional time for physical activity and PE, academic outcomes don’t decrease, they aren’t compromised,” explains Okely. “[Instead] you have children who are more settled, who can focus better, children who concentrate better in class.”

Movement is particularly key in the early years, where physical activity that builds core strength is crucial to developing motor skills. In an interview for the Tes Podagogy podcast, Jo Atkinson, research fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Leeds and lecturer in the School of Applied Health Professionals at the University of Bradford, explained that “it is very important [that younger children] have the chance to manipulate objects, to go on swings and hold the swing, to climb the slide holding the handrail, to play in mud, sand, water - they need the sensory and motor experiences so they can develop”.

Motor skills form the basis of what children need to be able to learn, such as sitting upright on a chair or holding a pencil correctly. Nick Preston, research fellow at the University of Leeds and an expert in developmental coordination disorder, estimates that around 6 to 10 per cent of children in the UK present with problems with motor skills in primary. In areas of high poverty, this figure can be higher, he says.

“Poor motor skills can have a profound impact on children’s life chances, he explains. “It affects their academic attainment, their psychosocial development. They’ve been called onlookers in the playground,” he says.

They are also more likely to avoid sport and physical activity, he says, and miss out on the health benefits.

It all makes for a compelling case, but implementing this research in a school at first appears tricky. Getting all staff on board with the idea of more active lessons, battling the belief of some that active lessons mean poorer behaviour, as well as putting in place the financing, training and equipment to facilitate more activity, and overhauling your timetable, seems a big ask.

By comparison, the recommendations from cognitive science that require no new kit, arguably lend themselves to “strict” behaviour policies and require no real timetable upheaval seem simpler. Is that why the latter has taken hold at school and policy level and the former has not?

Advocates of more active lessons argue that no one is claiming schools alone have to be the provider of all of the exercise opportunities, just that they take their fair share of the responsibility.

“I don’t think any single setting is responsible for increasing activity levels,” says Okely. “I like to think of it as a 24-hour period and each environment a child is in has a key role to play in promoting physical activity for children. School is central to that because it’s where children spend most of their time for 40 weeks of the year.”

He adds that the notion that meeting this requirement would require a major overhaul of schools is also wrong. For example, he stresses the importance of putting simple policies in place, such as ensuring that pupils get their full break and lunchtimes. “We are seeing more and more that the recess period is being shrunk because schools want to have more academic learning time, or because it’s being used for meetings or to catch up on some other school work,” he says.

Other policies could include opening up all school space for activity during breaktimes (risk-assessed, of course) to provide maximum opportunities for movement, and bringing in short exercise sessions (as is already common in most early years settings). Thorner C of E Primary School does both of these things with no negative impact on the school day and no need to overhaul the timetable.

Whole-school policy

The researchers stress, though, that this does not mean leaders should adopt a “bolt-on” approach. It still has to be a whole-school policy: research suggests that the introduction of “stick-on” interventions don’t work.

“An example of that would be children starting a running programme in school to increase their physical activity but then they compensate at other areas of the day [by being sedentary] because they’ve been more active elsewhere,” says Daly-Smith.

Instead, schools need to build movement into the school philosophy and vision, even if they are not overhauling what they do. Daly-Smith has been involved in developing a new Creating Active Schools Framework to help teachers develop a whole-school approach to increasing physical activity, taking their local circumstances into account.

However, despite all these assurances, there are still issues. For example, training would be needed. Success would require every teacher to fully buy into the need for more movement across the school day and to be able to facilitate it - that means changes to continuing professional development and initial teacher training, Daly-Smith admits. Currently, both tend to focus only on PE and school sport. “It doesn’t focus on the broader remit of a whole-school approach to physical activity, like creating an active travel plan for your school,” he says.

Okely also suggests some fundamental shifts in pedagogy - and the advice is in sharp contrast to the recommendations of cognitive science. For example, he stresses the importance of an overall pedagogical approach, and school and classroom design in encouraging movement. Children sitting at desks while the teacher imparts knowledge is “clearly outdated now”, he says.

Flexible classrooms and pedagogical approaches that allow pupils to move around, work on their own or collaboratively, need to be adopted, Okely explains. And he claims they encourage better behaviour and outcomes - the health benefits are almost a byproduct. “It’s almost like intervention by stealth. Because a side product is they are being more active,” he says.

Budgets may well be a problem, too, if you consider what a model school for an “active-pedagogy” approach might look like.

A good example is the Frederiksbjerg School in Aarhus, Denmark, which has been designed to encourage movement throughout the school day, with seemingly no expense spared. From high-quality play and sports resources in the playgrounds to an enviable climbing wall in place of stairs, pupils are encouraged to be in motion as often as possible, keeping them mentally alert.

The school’s headteacher, Jette Bjørn Hansen, told the Unisport website: “We got the opportunity to rethink how we want children to go to school. We didn’t want a traditional school of ass-toseat teaching for many hours, but a school where the students can’t help but move actively.”

Retrofitting this type of offer to school buildings would be potentially prohibitively expensive, however.

These three areas that need consideration - finance, pedagogy, and training - are not insignificant. So even if schools did want to buy into the active school ethos, is becoming such a school to the degree the research advocates simply too difficult?

On the finance side, Frederiksbjerg School is an example of what could be, not necessarily what should be done, while Thorner is a good example of a school that has looked at the research, seen the benefits and found a way through the challenges.

Thorner and many other schools have introduced more movement into the school day without huge financial outlay, or any at all. For example, simply opening up all the grass areas of the school and allowing (risk-assessed) climbing of trees is as good as any climbing wall.

Holmes says that he has also found a way of getting teacher and pupil buy-in as well as ensuring the timetable does not need overhauling. Children are directly involved in decision making with teachers about which physical activities they do, while each teacher decides independently when to take the active breaks in lessons and what to do during them - so it doesn’t interrupt flow and teachers can go with the mood of the day.

As for pedagogy, the school has managed to hit the government activity targets without needing to interfere with what teachers are doing in the classroom.

Push it

So the school has proved that it is as possible to implement the research on activity as it is cognitive science - it’s just about having the will to do it. Perhaps the research above will persuade more schools to do the same.

Meanwhile, Holmes wants to look at how much further he could push things if he did try to change the pedagogy around activity.

He is beginning to encourage teachers to make their lessons more physically active where it is “purposeful”.

“We are not telling teachers what to do. It is not ‘thou shalt’, it’s ‘we would like you to think about this’,” he says. “Teachers have got so much on their plate at the moment - if I said they have to do it, we’d probably end up doing it in every classroom but not effectively. I’d rather give teachers that platform to be creative because, if we’re creative with it, we’ll get the best results.”

Many schools - and academics - will be watching with curiosity to see if that prediction ultimately proves to be true.

Irena Barker is an education writer. She tweets @irenabarker

This article originally appeared in the 31 January 2020 issue under the headline “Active duty”

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